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World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (IV) – The British, the French and the Russians

Updated on December 18, 2014
German and Soviet soldiers in Brest. September 20, 1939.
German and Soviet soldiers in Brest. September 20, 1939. | Source
Sir Neville Henderson, British ambassador in Berlin.
Sir Neville Henderson, British ambassador in Berlin. | Source

British Declaration of War

The American cargo steamship “City of Flint” rescuing passengers from “Athenia”.
The American cargo steamship “City of Flint” rescuing passengers from “Athenia”. | Source

The British

With a telegram sent at 07:43am on September the first, the British ambassador in Warsaw Sir Howard William Kennard informed the British foreign minister Lord Halifax that the Germans had invaded Poland. Lord Halifax directed his ambassador in Berlin Sir Nevile Henderson to present his self to the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and demand the cessation of all hostilities and the withdrawal of the German forces. If these demands were not met the British Government would fulfill their obligations to Poland. He was referring to the Polish – British Common Defense Pact, signed on August 25, 1939. Hostilities were not ceased and the German armies advanced even further.


On September the third, at 09:00am Henderson was at the front of the Reich’s Foreign Ministry; he was received by Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter. Ribbentrop intentionally avoided meeting him. The Germans had to assure the British, within the next two hours, that they were ready to call off their attack in Poland. Hitler was totally unprepared for such a development. He was hopping until the last minute that Britain wouldn’t fight. Paul Schmidt wrote in his memoirs that when he read the British ultimatum Hitler glared at Ribbentrop and said savagely: “and now what?” Later he regained his confidence and expressed the thought that Britain would only fight a Kartoffelkrieg (potato war - an economic blockade). In the end Hitler got exactly what he was hoping to avoid. A new European war with Great Britain against him.

At 11:15 am the same day Neville Chamberlain, the British PM, addressed the nation; his country was now at war. A new government was formed and Winston Churchill was included. At 19:40 pm, an unarmed passenger ship, the SS Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine, west of Ireland. 117 people lost their lives. During the night British bombers penetrated German airspace and threw leaflets. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began arriving in France in mid-September. By the end of March 1940 a total of ten divisions had arrived, organized into three Corps.

Men of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, among the first to arrive at France, disembarking at Cherbourg. September 16, 1939.
Men of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, among the first to arrive at France, disembarking at Cherbourg. September 16, 1939. | Source
Robert Coulondre, French ambassador in Berlin, talking to SS officials.
Robert Coulondre, French ambassador in Berlin, talking to SS officials. | Source
Daladier visiting French pilots.
Daladier visiting French pilots. | Source

The French

At 08:30 in the morning of September the first, Georges Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister received a telegram from Leon Noel, the French ambassador in Warsaw, informing him that German troops had crossed the Polish soil. The same day at 10 p.m. Monsieur Coulondre, French ambassador in Berlin, visited Herr von Ribbentrop and handed over a communication demanding the withdrawal of German troops. With no answer coming from the German side Coulondre presented himself to Ribbentrop two days later. Their meeting ended at 5 p.m. France and Germany were officially at war.

The French government signed the decree of general mobilization on September 1. The next day French PM, Édouard Daladier, stated in the parliament:

«Gentlemen, in these hours when the fate of Europe is in the balance, France is speaking to us through the voice of her sons, through the voice of all those who have already accepted, if need be, the greatest sacrifice of all. Let us recapture, as they have done, that spirit which fired all the heroes of our history. France rises with such impetuous impulses only when she feels in her heart that she is fighting for her life and for her independence. Gentlemen, today France is in command.»

On September 7, supposedly honoring its commitments to Poland, the French High Command ordered an attack of nine divisions, along a sixteen mile front, in the area of Saarbrücken, which became known as the Saar Offensive. Meeting little resistance, French troops advanced to a depth of five miles, without even reaching the Siegfried Line. Minor engagements took place and the French suffered a number of casualties, mainly from German mines. On September 12, as the situation in Poland was deteriorating, the offense was halted and the troops were ordered to go on the defensive. On October 4 all units were withdrawn to France.

The Saar offensive.
The Saar offensive. | Source
The partition of Poland. The map is signed by Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop. September 28, 1939.
The partition of Poland. The map is signed by Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop. September 28, 1939. | Source
Soviet propaganda poster depicting the Red Army killing the Polish eagle which had supposedly oppressed the Belarusians and Ukrainian peasants under Polish rule.
Soviet propaganda poster depicting the Red Army killing the Polish eagle which had supposedly oppressed the Belarusians and Ukrainian peasants under Polish rule. | Source

The Russians

During the Sudeten crisis the Western Democracies ignored Stalin, who was in favor of taking action against Hitler. Moreover Stalin was persuaded that France and Great Britain wouldn’t fight for central Europe. The time had come to look elsewhere for alliances. Giving free reign to Hitler could have brought a Franco-German war closer and Stalin would be delighted to watch the capitalists annihilate themselves.

On August 23 Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow to sign the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The document included a secret protocol about the partition of Poland. Early on September 17 Wacław Grzybowski, Polish ambassador in Warsaw, was informed that Soviet troops had entered Polish soil to protect ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians from the irresponsibility of Polish government, which had caused the war with the German Reich.

The invading army of 466,516 men and 3,739 tanks was organized into two army groups: the Belarusian Front in the north and the Ukrainian Front in the south. Against this massive force some 12,000 Polish soldiers defended heroically their homeland.

On September 22 Red Army troops, namely the XIX Motorized Brigade, reached Brest-Litovsk (Brest) which was already occupied by Guderian. The two commanders, Guderian and Krivoshein, organized a common parade. Elsewhere the meeting of German and Soviet troops was not so harmonious and at Lviv the two sides exchanged fires. For the Soviet government the war with Poland ended officially on October 6, 1939.

Heinz Guderian and Semyon Krivoshein attending the victory parade at Brest-Litovsk.
Heinz Guderian and Semyon Krivoshein attending the victory parade at Brest-Litovsk. | Source

Guderian and Krivoshein

Bibliography

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis. Penguin Books Ltd., 2000.

The French Yellow Book

The British War Blue Book

Zaloga, Steven J. Poland 1939 The Birth of Blitzkrieg. 2002. Reprint. Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2003.

Comments

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    • profile image

      Latoya 

      5 years ago

      Boy that relaly helps me the heck out.

    • panpan1972 profile imageAUTHOR

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 

      5 years ago from Greece

      Thanks for your comment Loran.

    • profile image

      Loran 

      5 years ago

      Deep thinking - adds a new diemosinn to it all.

    • panpan1972 profile imageAUTHOR

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 

      5 years ago from Greece

      Thanks for your comment lions! I think that when Hitler said "and now what?" he was really caught off balance, but nobody was willing to give him a good kick.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      5 years ago from PNW

      Extraordinary details, as always. This is a great reminder how not to handle a crisis. Poland was thrown to the wolves. You wonder what would have happened if France kept up the Saar Offensive. Voted up and shared.

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